CHERSKIY, Russia—Fire is on the rise in the Arctic as the land dries up and air temperatures increase at a rate more than twice as fast as the warming in more temperate climates. Does that fire accelerate the release of carbon from the thawing permafrost below?
To answer that question scientists here are studying various fire scars, patches of forest ravaged by fire in the past. Test burns of shrubby tundra burned two years ago lie near a dirt road on which the scientists jog. A site across the river accessible by boat was a big larch forest completely trashed by a fire about eight years ago; driving by car allows researchers to collect data from fires roughly 75 years old.
One day by boat we explore the eight-year old site where recent damage is so acute. Before the fire a somewhat orderly larch forest stood along the banks here where the Panteleikha river met the mighty Kolyma across from Cherskiy. Now the forest is wildly bumpy; trees lean left and right; the ground has been thawed massively. Where the permafrost held big wedges of ice hidden before below ground there are ten-foot wide depressions; the more soil-rich sections are the high points. The working hypothesis is that fire destroys the top layer of organic soil that insulates the permafrost below. Without that blanket to keep the permafrost cold it melts, sags and shrinks. The scientists want to know if it releases more methane or CO2 as a result.
It takes a while for us to make our way to the area of the forest where the scientists have been collecting gases. There the researchers measure gas fluxes with small plastic syringes and larger gas-collecting containers that look like the tupperwear bins in which one would store a birthday cake. In this photo scientists are measuring out a test plot for close study.
While I’m in Cherskiy my skin often feels the effect of the dry conditions, though during my two weeks in the region no fires burn in the boreal forest that surrounds the station or the tundra further north towards the sea. But on the flight south to Yakutsk after my time in Chersiky is over the faint smell of ash is in the air and darkish clouds of smoke drift on the horizon along with normal clouds. Russia is facing more fires than ever and now scientists want to know what impact that might have.